Afro-Cuban All Stars, Nancy King, Esperanza Spalding among festival acts

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND JAZZ FESTIVAL - The diverse and ever-changing Afro-Cuban All Stars are a highlight of the Portland Jazz Festival, which takes place all across the city, Feb. 15 to 24.Juan de Marcos Gonzalez is blunt when asked what he thinks of travel restrictions that can create hassles for Cuban musicians coming to the United States.

“It’s time to go ahead and stop all this bull——,” he says during a phone interview from El Paso, where he’s rehearsing with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

The All Stars are among the bigger names coming to the city for the U.S. Bank Portland Jazz Festival presented by Alaska Airlines, from Friday, Feb. 15, through Sunday, Feb. 24, at several venues throughout Portland. Performers include Esperanza Spalding, Galactic, SexMob, Patricia Barber, the Blue Cranes, Scott Hamilton, Kenny Garrett (just nominated for two Grammys) and Rebecca Kilgore.

Highlights include a Portland-only tribute to Art Blakey on Feb. 22 at the Newmark Theatre by former members of his Jazz Messengers.

Tickets range from $15 to $58 and can be purchased at or by calling 503-228-5299.

De Marcos last played the festival in 2009. A Havana native, he has dual citizenship in Cuba and Mexico, and members of his band similarly are citizens of Cuba and some other country. That means they can generally travel with passports from countries with no restrictions to the United States. But it’s clear de Marcos would like to be able to enter this country easily as a Cuban, and he says music could serve as a salve on Cold War wounds.

“It is time to step ahead and forget the past,” he says, adding he fully expects some of his fellow Cubans to be in the audience at the Aladdin Theater Feb. 15 when the All Stars play.

“Normally, we have a lot of Cubans wherever we perform,” he says.

The man behind the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, de Marcos worked to rediscover the neglected stars of Cuba’s golden age of music in the 1940s and ‘50s. The initial recording put together by de Marcos and Ry Cooder went on to become a Grammy-winning album and was made into an Oscar-nominated film. De Marcos says the Portland gig will feature 15 of Cuba’s finest musicians and singers and showcase the All Stars’ varied styles.

“The music is going to be danceable, but at the same time people will have a chance to look at the musicianship of the different performers,” he says, adding that folks familiar with the “Buena Vista Social Club” movie may recognize some of the tunes.

“We’ll have new fresh versions. They are going to sound much more contemporary than the versions heard in the ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ “

Cuban music is more closely related to the music of 16th and 17th century West Africa than the music America’s black community created, he says, noting the Spanish did not repress the musical expression of African slaves as ruthlessly as the British did in colonial America.

Hence, Cuban music developed along the lines of the kind of hand-percussion-driven rhythms often found in African music, using congas and bongos, for example, whereas American jazz primarily utilized the drum kit, which first appeared in the late 19th century, he says.

Along with cowbells and timbales (the latter invented in Cuba), the tempos created by hand percussion, as well as the American-influenced brass parts of Cuban music, shaped the island’s contemporary sounds, which also features guitar, tres, bass and piano, de Marcos says.

“The syncopation and combination of all these sounds create the basics of Cuban music,” the tres player adds, noting his instrument “is like the lead guitar for rock ‘n’ roll.”

The All Stars share the stage with pianist Alfredo Rodriquez. The show takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, in the Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. ($30).

Turning 10

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the festival. In addition to the All Stars, jazz lovers can catch a number of compelling players and singers, according to Don Lucoff, festival organizer.

“I think that this lineup respects the festival’s history because we’re bringing some of Portland’s favorite artists, such as the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Patricia Barber and Scott Hamilton, and it respects many of the celebrated artists that make jazz a global music phenomenon,” he says.

Some of the folks you won’t want to miss include:

Jack DeJohnette — It would be more accurate to ask who hasn’t this drummer and pianist backed rather than whom has he backed. From Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner to Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, DeJohnette embodies the history of post-war jazz in his very being. In Portland, he’ll join saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, his longtime pianist and Portland State University professor George Colligan and bassist Matthew Garrison. Info: 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway ($30).

ACS — Pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Portland’s own Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning bassist, have been called “three of the most important female instrumentalists in current jazz.” In truth, they’re simply among the most important instrumentalists, period. Performing together for the first time on the West Coast, the ladies worked together on Carrington’s Grammy-winning album “The Mosaic Project,” and have been acclaimed by The Village Voice for their “expressionistic push-pull” and “jazz fealty as disorienting as it was riveting.” Info: 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, Newmark Theatre ($58, $48, $28).

Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band — You’d need a whole train car to carry all the musicians Portland’s Abrams has brought together for this outfit. On trumpets, we’ve got Joel Riddell, Greg Garrett, Paul Mazzio, Matt Carr and Buzz Graham. Blowing trombone will be Dave Parker, Rick Tippets, Ed Green and John Ohnstad. Jeff Homan, Allan Mair, John Nastos, Susie Jones and Pete Boule will be fingering their saxophones, and Mike Horsfall will tickle the ivories. Kevin Deitz will fulfill bass duties and Mike Snyder will bang the skins.

The band will back Portland singer Kilgore in a tribute to the late great bandleader Stan Kenton, and the Shanghai Woolies open the show, which takes place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, in Scottish Rite Auditorium, 709 S.W. 15th Ave. ($20, $30).

Abrams will also talk about Kenton in a conversation with former KMHD on-air host Shawn Kirkeby in a free event at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, in Ivories Jazz Lounge, 1435 N.W. Flanders St.

On that note, KMHD will be recording jam sessions by the festival’s performers at the Art Bar, in the rotunda of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, Feb. 22, and Saturday, Feb. 23, to be broadcast in the future.

Nancy King

Festival organizers are honoring Portland singer Nancy King as a Portland Jazz Master during the festival. Along with Steve Christofferson on piano and Glen Moore on bass, King will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, in the Winningstad Theatre. She’ll also have a “Jazz Conversation” at 5 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Ivories Jazz Lounge.

Generous with stories and laughter, King says she’s thrilled Portland’s jazz community is taking time to recognize her again (she’s a member of the Oregon Jazz Society’s Hall of Fame).

“I’m glad to think Portland thinks I’m a bit of all right,” she says with a laugh.

King notes that she and Moore — “the bass and face” — will showcase some of their tunes from three albums they released in the 1990s, and she’ll also sing some pieces written by Moore. Guitarist Herb Ellis called her “the greatest living jazz singer,” but King says whatever she does, she’d rather you don’t call it “scat.”

“Scat is bear poop,” she says with a great laugh, referring to her childhood as a country girl. “The word is so weird. I prefer ‘vocal improvising.’ ”

Singing since she was a child, and professionally since the 1960s, she’s stayed healthy for decades by avoiding cigarettes and alcohol and has worked with Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders, Bill Evans, Jon Hendriks and Vince Guaraldi among many, many others.

She has no plans to stop singing, but if her voice gives out, she’ll teach.

“I’m speeding along at the speed of sound all the time,” she says. “I want to live as long as I can and I want to sing as long as I can.”

Wait, there’s more!

Other festival highlights include Berlin guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel playing Portland for the first time, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Lewis & Clark College, and Gerald Wilson’s first Portland appearance since 1949, when he played lead trumpet with Count Basie at McElroy’s Ballroom.

Trumpeter and bandleader Wilson, 94, will appear in 7 and 9:30 p.m. shows at Jimmy Mak’s Feb. 18 and also lead the PDX Jazz All-Star Student Big Band and the PDX Jazz Educators Septet at 6 p.m. Feb. 17, in Ivories Jazz Lounge. The jazz icon is credited for pioneering the use of eight-part harmonies.

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